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Report dispels 'model-minority' myth of Asian Americans

Findings include high percentages of poverty and high rates of limited English proficiency in Philadelphia.

IN A CITY already struggling with a high poverty rate, some Asian ethnic groups are faring worse than the average.

About 41 percent of Cambodians in Philadelphia are in poverty, as are about 33 percent of Chinese (not including those from Taiwan), and about 31 percent of Vietnamese.

In contrast, the poverty rate for Philadelphia as a whole was 25 percent in the Census Bureau's 2006-10 American Community Survey estimates, used for the poverty figures.

The findings were highlighted in a new report, A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the Northeast, released yesterday by a consortium of Asian-American organizations.

"One of the things that we know in Philadelphia is that the Asian-American community is growing at an extraordinary rate, has growing political power and voice, but it also has tremendous amounts of need," said Helen Gym, board member of Asian Americans United, the lead local group involved with the report.

"The Asian-American community is so often defined by perception and stereotype as opposed to data that it often masks a lot of what public policy needs are and what priorities are for our communities," Gym said at a news conference.

In addition to the high poverty percentages, other findings in the report included:

* 47 percent of Asian-Americans in Philadelphia, or more than 43,000 people, are limited English proficient. Chinese (61 percent) and Vietnamese (58 percent) have higher rates of limited English proficiency than other ethnic groups in the city.

* The number of poor Asians or Asian-Americans grew 52 percent from 2007 to 2011. "The economic downturn has clearly had an impact on our communities," said Marita Etcubanez, director of programs with the national coalition Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the lead group behind the report.

* Only 58 percent of Vietnamese and 52 percent of Cambodian adults have high school diplomas.

* Although Asian-American adults are more likely than other groups to have a college degree, only 9 percent of Cambodian and 13 percent of Vietnamese are college graduates, rates similar to those for Latinos (11 percent) and African-Americans (12 percent).

The report's findings were not surprising to those who have worked with the various community groups.

Rorng Sorn, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia and a former refugee, said that her community has been affected by the loss of jobs after factories in the auto, health-care and clothing industries in the Philadelphia suburbs moved elsewhere.

Andy Toy, managing director of the Eastern Tower Community Center project for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said of the high percentage of Chinese people in poverty: "A lot of it has to do with the newer immigrants who are here."

Those with limited English skills often get "low-end jobs working in the restaurants," he said.

Thoai Nguyen, CEO of the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, said that for refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the resources available to help people get settled were "far too short of what is actually necessary."

Gym noted that a study by the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy found that in Philadelphia, only 0.07 percent of foundation and government grants above $10,000 were given to Asian-American and Pacific-Islander organizations.

The report, based on data from the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, can be found at